A Game of Ghosts
A new fall of snow had settled upon the old, like memories, like the years.
It would freeze, too, according to the weathermen, adding another layer to the ice that blanketed the city, and another day or two to the slow thaw that must inevitably come, although any release from the cold seemed distant on this February evening. Still, at least the latest snowfall, the first in more than a week, hid beneath it the filth of earlier accumulations, and the streets of Portland would look fresh and unsullied again, for a time.
Although the air was chill, it held no clarity. A faint mist hung over the streets, creating penumbrae around the streetlights like the halos of saints, and making a dreamscape of the skyline. It lent the city a sense of duplication, as though its ways and buildings had been overlaid imperfectly upon some earlier version of itself, and now that shadow variant was peering through, the people of the present within touching distance of those of the past.
Charlie Parker walked up Exchange Street, his head lowered against the rawness of the dark so that he progressed like a ram between sidewalk drifts. He didn’t need NBC to tell him that winter was tightening its grip. Some ancient personification of the season seemed to sense the approach of spring, even if no one else could, and was determined to
cling to its white kingdom for as long as it was able. Parker could feel it in his bones, and in his wounds. His left hand was curled into a ball of hurt in his pocket, and the scars on his back felt tight and uncomfortable. His head ached, and had anyone asked, he could have pointed to the scattering of odd markings in his hair, silver-gray along the lines cut through his scalp by the shotgun pellets, and ascribed a locus of agony to each.
Older injuries troubled him too. Many years before, he had thrown himself into a frigid lake in the far north of the state rather than face the guns that would otherwise surely have ended his life. He had still taken a bullet for his troubles, although the pain of the strike was dulled by the greater shock of immersion in freezing water. He should have died, but he did not. Later, the doctors would throw an array of medical terms in his direction—hypothermia, hypotension, hypervolemia, high blood viscosity—none of which was of any great benefit to the human body, or its prospects of immortality, but all of which applied, at some point, to him.
On top of being shot, he had then violated just about every piece of post-immersion medical management by continuing to fight his tormentors, and that was before someone tried to kick his teeth in. One of the attending physicians, a specialist in maritime medicine, wanted to write a paper on him, but Parker had politely declined the offer of free ongoing treatment and therapy in exchange for his cooperation. It was a decision he sometimes regretted. He often thought that his body had never quite recovered from the trauma it had endured, because he had since felt the cold in winter with an intensity he could not recall from youth or young manhood. Sometimes, even in a warm room, he would be struck by a fit of shivering so violent that it would leave him weak for hours after. Even his teeth would hurt. Once, they chattered so hard that he lost a crown.
But hey, he was still alive, and that was good, right? He thought of the old commonplace about how giving up vices didn’t make you live
longer, but just made it feel as though you were living longer. Nights like these made him feel as though he had been in pain all his life.
It was the first day of February. Parker could recall arguing with his grandfather about the months of winter, shortly after the old man had taken in the boy and his mother, permitting them to escape New York and the ripples from his father’s death. For Parker, those winter months were December, January, and February, but his grandfather, who had roots in another continent, always thought in terms of the old Gaelic calendar in which November was the first month of winter, and so for him February meant the start of spring. Even decades spent enduring the grimness of Maine winters, and the icy darkness of February in particular, had not shaken him in his conviction. As time went on, Parker came to suspect that the old man might have been wiser than his grandson realized. By embracing February as the birth of a new season, instead of the slow death of the old, his grandfather was demonstrating a degree of psychological acuity that enabled him to tolerate one of the worst months of the year by regarding it as the harbinger of better times to come.
Parker stopped outside Crooners & Cocktails. The bar was Ross’s choice. Parker wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as though the FBI man was intimate with Portland’s restaurant scene. Then again, Parker had come to accept that Edgar Ross was more attuned to unfamiliar rhythms than might be considered advisable, even for someone directly involved in matters of national security.
Actually, Parker liked Crooners & Cocktails. The name might have been a bit hokey, but the interior was a throwback to another era, and the food and drinks were good. He stared through the glass, fogged by the heat inside, and thought he could make out Ross’s figure at the back of the room. The agent had a half-filled glass in front of him, and what looked like a tray of oysters. Parker hated oysters. As for his feelings about Ross, the jury was still out.
Parker turned away from the window. He could hear music drift
ing up the street from Sonny’s, and across from him figures moved in the bar of the Press Hotel, a building that had housed the Portland Press Herald until the newspaper relocated to One City Center back in 2010. He’d been in the hotel only once, to take a look around and meet Angel and Louis for a drink. He thought it might be an okay place to stay, even if, like Crooners & Cocktails, it was a carefully cultivated exercise in nostalgia. Then again, maybe nostalgia was an understandable response to a world that appeared to be going all to hell, as long as everyone remembered that the past was a nice place to visit but nobody should want to settle in it.
One of the cars parked opposite was a black Lexus. Two men sat in the front. To avoid conflict, they would be listening to something neutral, Parker guessed: Classic Vinyl or Deep Tracks on Sirius. Both would be armed. He had informed them that Ross was coming. They were curious, just as Parker was. Ross rarely ventured so far north.
Parker’s cell phone rang. He answered, and Angel spoke.
“He arrived in a limousine,” said Angel, “but not one with government plates. The car dropped him off at this place, then left. I stayed with Ross, and Louis followed the car. It’s parked down on Middle Street. Private hire, but nothing flashy. The driver’s in Starbucks, playing games on his cell phone.”
Parker hung up, and adjusted the pin on his tie. He hated wearing ties.
“You still hearing me?” he asked.
From the passenger seat of the car, Angel showed him an upraised thumb. At least, Parker hoped it was a thumb. With Angel, one could never be sure.
With that, Parker entered the bar.
It struck him, as he was escorted to the table, that he knew almost nothing about Ross. Was he married? He didn’t wear a ring, but Parker was aware of men and women in risky professions who chose not to advertise their marital ties. He could be separated, or divorced. Given
his work, that would make sense. Did he have children? Parker thought not, but he’d been wrong about such matters before. Children mellowed some men, but made no difference at all to others beyond adding to their burdens. He’d read an interview with a novelist whose estranged daughter traveled thousands of miles to somewhere in Africa in order to mend their broken relationship, only to have the door slammed in her face. The novelist justified his actions on the grounds that he was not trained to deal with “problem children,” but Parker didn’t know of any parent who was trained to deal with children, problematic or not. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true: he knew a couple of child psychologists—one in particular—and they were terrible parents.
Ross stood to shake Parker’s hand. He had spilled Tabasco sauce on his shirt; just a speck, like a pinprick of blood. Parker didn’t comment on it, but he would find his eye drifting repeatedly toward it over the course of the evening, as though it represented an aspect profound that otherwise refused to reveal itself.
Parker handed his coat to the hostess but kept his jacket on.
“I figured you wouldn’t mind if I ordered some oysters before you arrived,” said Ross, once they were both seated. “I know how you feel about seafood.”
“That’s gracious of you,” said Parker. His general distaste for shellfish and seafood had, he realized, hardened into a phobia. He might have been tempted to see a therapist about it, were he not afraid of what a distrust of bivalves could suggest about his personality.
“What are you drinking?” he asked Ross.
“A Dewar’s and Disaronno. It’s called a Godfather.”
“I hope you’re being ironic.”
Parker glanced at the cocktail menu, found a drink he wasn’t too embarrassed to order—a Journalist, mainly Bombay Original and vermouth—and set the list aside. He barely sipped the cocktail once it was in front of him. He still had an aversion to hard liquor, but he’d learned long ago that when in the company of just one other person
who was drinking, it paid to have something similar in turn, even if not a drop of it passed one’s lips. Coffee, beer, wine, Scotch, it didn’t matter: the act of ordering relaxed the other party, and that relaxation was important for the eliciting of information. Then again, Ross probably knew this already. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t have been working for the FBI.
He and Ross made small talk for a time—politics, the weather, Parker’s health—before ordering entrees: monkfish for Ross, steak for Parker, with glasses of Riesling and Malbec, respectively, to go with them. The waitress left them. Music played low, a counterpoint to the hum of conversation.
“So,” said Parker, “why are you here?”